by Delphi Cleaveland
April 8, 2020
COVID-19 endangers the lives of women — a reality overlooked entirely by all national policy and relief efforts to date. These measures fail to address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on care-workers, nor do they account for the severe impact ‘shelter in place’ orders have on domestic violence — dealing women a losing hand.
In Europe, efforts to confront the global pandemic initially resulted in an “every man for himself” attitude, as borders closed, and countries desperately tried to contain and control the virus’ spread. But if it’s every man for himself, where are the women?
In the United States, the $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress last week (known as the CARES Act) is nothing short of capitalist greed that exacerbates pre-existing inequality in the United States — President Trump only makes this worse when he questions the trade-off between economic growth and American lives.
Women overwhelmingly dominate the care-economy — both in Europe and the United States. Women make up nearly 70 percent of the healthcare workforce globally, and are overrepresented as nurses and staff responsible for intimate patient care. This places them on the front lines of efforts to combat COVID-19, and increases their likelihood of exposure.
While women on average appear to be less prone to contracting the virus, health experts and women’s rights activists across the world worry this crisis will magnify existing inequalities and exacerbate negative outcomes for women overall.
According to a report by the World Health Organization, gender roles “influence where men and women spend their time, and the infectious agents they come into contact with, as well as the nature of exposure, its frequency and its intensity.” In other words, the position of women relative to men in society can disproportionately impact one’s risk of disease contraction.
Moreover, women play an integral role in care for children and the elderly across the transatlantic care-economies. These sectors are experiencing significant backlash in light of measures seeking to isolate national approaches to the virus’ spread.
Germany has witnessed particular hardship in this oversight, as the country has a 600,000 shortage in care workers, predominantly the result of restricted border access between Poland and Germany. The absence of this care has resulted in further chaos and economic devastation as families struggle to provide care to elderly relatives while still balancing job and childcare obligations.
Women are also overrepresented in part-time and informal work. In the United Kingdom, 40 percent of women work part-time compared to only 13 percent of men. In the United States, roughly 30 percent of women work part-time compared to 15.8 percent of men. This leaves women with more to lose in the event of economic hardship experienced by service industry and part-time employers.
The final and most lethal impact of current efforts to address Covid-19 is the expected effect of ‘shelter in place’ on rates of domestic violence. Across EU member states between 13 and 32 percent of women have reported experiencing intimate partner violence since the age of 15. Analysts expect these numbers to soar in the coming weeks as families and couples are confined to their homes with mounting insecurity and limited access to external resources.
Policymakers in the U.S. and across Europe must take steps to ensure women are explicitly included in relief packages on both sides of the Atlantic.
First, support for healthcare workers will inadvertently support women. Given the overrepresentation of women in the health sector and care economy, it is imperative that we take measures to specifically empower individuals in these sectors to ensure women can continue to perform their jobs to the best of their ability, without contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to their families. This means ensuring paid-time off and the provision of health and safety equipment to equip workers effectively to do their jobs.
Second, lessening the burdens on part-time or laid-off workers will also disproportionately help women. Roughly a quarter of American workers — more than thirty million people — do not have access to paid sick leave. The CARES Act — which earmarked $500 billion in bailouts for big corporations — is an embarrassment to working families across the country, and only provides workers at small- and mid-sized companies with two weeks of paid sick leave for the rest of the year.
Third, we should establish additional helplines and resources for victims of domestic abuse and publicize these through social media and targeted algorithms to subtly reach the largest audience.
The time has passed for policymakers to assume that the responsibility to “care” falls on the shoulders of private citizens. No one is immune in the era of COVID-19 from bearing the burden of care for family members, just as no one is immune from contracting the disease. It is time policymakers across the West realize their oversight and shift from the paradigm of “every man for himself”’ to “stronger together.”
Delphi Cleaveland is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies with a focus on women, peace and security at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.